Saturday, 24 October 2009

For a robust and open democracy The other day I gave a presentation and ran a mini-workshop on social justice and community development for the Policy Forum at CILIP (formerly the Library Association). One illustration of community development I referred to was the recent television series about the 'Unsung Town', which describes some of the process of using singing to stimulate connections, collective involvement and a sense of achievement in South Oxhey, an area I know well. We know that what happenened there is community development because a committee for the choir has been formed and last week appears to have taken an independent political decision: it was offered a £1,000 grant by a county councillor and declined it: “We’ve worked really hard as a group to be inclusive of everybody and promote an ethnically diverse choir. We don’t feel the BNP shares those values so, as a group, we decided to turn the money down.” It's an example of the leaky lamplight of community development falling for a moment on big shadowy issues of social justice. For a new and probably inexperienced group it may well have been a challenge and they dealt with it, and will be the stronger. All round the country today there will have been people in homes, workplaces, colleges, online and elsewhere, discussing the appearance of the leader of the British National Party on BBC television last night. That discussion will be based around the man's tawdry opinions of other members of the species, and people will be airing thoughts on spikey political issues of racism, homophobia and blunt prejudice, which politics generally discourages them from exploring. So perhaps that's a good thing. Sound points about the representativeness of the audience from Philip Norton here. The event has reminded us that we have a version of public service broadcasting which is intimately related to open democracy (even if it doesn't always do it very well). It's been surprising the number of commentators who seem ready to overlook the inconvenience of the formal elected status of BNP representatives (including in South Oxhey). This is only good insofar as it highlights how unsatisfactory the electoral system is to more and more people. I suppose it also illustrates how we still struggle with the tension between the right to freedom of speech - for a party with a given level of representation, in public debate - and the right to be protected from racism and homophobia. We still get confusions, like the hapless example of Yale University Press, who decided to cut the images when publishing Jytte Klausen's book on those Danish cartoons. But hey, what are centuries of debate and insight into the nature of democracy and freedom of speech to a committee at a university press? (Among the various explorations, see eg here). Many years ago I wrote an essay on 'Freedom of access to information' (published in this volume: can't find electronic version) in which I made a point about how freedom of speech does not necessarily trump other freedoms...
Picnic and 'community' Victorian picnics were often feats of military-style organisation and endurance. They established the picnic as a grand social event rather like the 18th century ball, made possible by the servants, at which the manoeuvres of social interests (marriage and money) were played out. But being Victorian English, eccentricity had its place, depicted by Dickens and Surtees among others. Francis Kilvert in his diary for 1870 records one example: ‘We had tea all across the road, completely obstructing the thoroughfare…’ I'm writing an essay about picnic and community, following the Wellcome event back in June. As far as I can discover, the large-scale picnic was never a strategic instrument to stimulate trade from the global tourism industry (although Dorothy Wordsworth probably came very close). But this is is the twenty-first century, and big cities can turn to 'community' as a device to attract attention, strategically, within that global market. In Sydney they closed the harbour bridge for a picnic - turf laid especially, entertainment ditto, breakfast all across the road. In the Beeb's coverage, one of the first words you hear from a participant is 'community': 'It's a sense of community. Everyone's here having a good time.' A politician appears. Sydney needs the boost, we're told. So picnic is a device for 'community' which in turn is a device for economic prosperity. Hence the spectacularisation. And you thought you were just packin' a snack.

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